Law Note: Social Workers and Child Abuse Reporting

A Review of State Mandatory Reporting Requirements

by: Peter McLeod, Law Clerk and Carolyn I. Polowy, NASW General Counsel
Published: March 2000 ©NASW
Pages: 102, including appendix


"Reporting [child abuse] frequently becomes an ethical dilemma as a result of complex interactions among several factors including diverse professional contexts, legal requirements, professional-ethical standards, and the circumstances of suspected abuse. The reporting dilemma also reflects the fact that breaching confidentiality and breaking the law both constitute unethical behavior." 

However, beyond the professional difficulties in dealing with child abuse and neglect, there is a distinct need to intervene on behalf of the children victimized by abuse.Currently, an estimated one million children are victims of child abuse and neglect each year. In 1996, child protective services in all states investigated more than two million reports and substantiated just under one million, child abuse victims. Approximately 1,000 victims, who were previously known by child protective services, died as a result of abuse and neglect. Because of legal requirements, over fifty percent of all investigated reports of child abuse came from professionals, including medical personnel, law enforcement, educators and social service workers.

This law note discusses issues social workers confront when dealing with child abuse and neglect situations. First, this note provides a brief history of the federal legislation that mandated child protective services and the reporting of suspected child abuse at the federal level then surveys state statutes and case law, providing an overview of the current state of mandatory reporting. Third, it identifies ethical considerations mandated reporters face. Finally, it provides practical steps in reporting child abuse and, in addition, an appendix summarizing each state's reporting requirements.

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